A groundbreaking experiment that was started in 1959 set out to discover if foxes could be domesticated, with a view to learning more about how our ancestors domesticated other animals. By selectively breeding foxes that were least afraid of humans, zoologist Dmitry Belyaev was able to breed foxes that sought out human interaction, wagged their tails, and became tame. At the same time the appearance of the foxes began to change, their tails became curly, their ears became floppy, and their coats became spotty.
To date it has been proposed that these cute physical traits are common in domesticated animals, including goats, dogs and pigs. Some have suggested that this indicated a common genetic change in animals as they transition over generations from wild to domesticated and call it ‘domestication syndrome’. New research from the University of Massachusetts indicates that this conclusion may have been a stretch.
The team suggest that while it is clear that Belyaev was able to breed foxes that were tamer, it is less clear whether this experiment proves the existence of domestication syndrome. They point out that the foxes used to set up the initial population used in the study were not in fact wild, and rather collected from a fur farm in eastern Canada, so may well already have been on the way to being domesticated. Also, because fur farmers at the time were attempting to breed foxes with unusual pelts, the fact the subsequent foxes bred in the experiment became more spotted may be due to their ancestry which was then amplified by the selective breeding.
All of this to say that while the fox experiment is tantalizing, it does not conclusively prove that domestication syndrome is a real phenomenon. There is also not sufficient evidence to prove that it isn’t, so further studies in a number of animal species, with stringent experimental design will be required before we can conclusively say if our beloved domestic animal’s features are a result of domestication syndrome, or other causes.
Source: Washington Post
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